'The Magdalene Sisters'

By Eric F. Mallonga
The Manila Times [Philippines]
Downloaded October 13, 2003

GREENBELT Cinema has been showing Director Peter Mullan’s riveting Oscar-worthy film The Magdalene Sisters. In a country recently made aware of “clerical pedophilia” by Catholic priests, such sexual depravities constitute a mere backdrop to institutionalized cruelties of Catholic nuns. It is a movie with urgent social relevance and consciousness intended to denounce the inhumane treatment of female adolescents by ordained Catholic religious leaders. Movie critic Joe Baltake calls the film “harsh and angry,” which “stages a deliberately paced and thoroughly researched indictment of institutionalized cruelty and the kind of ignorance and hypocrisy that validates and encourages it.

The Magdalene Sisters is set in 1964 County Dublin, Ireland, graphically depicting the systematic punishment and demoralization of adolescents, who have committed no crimes except for having been born female. Declared as “wayward women,” they are victims of rape, incest seduction. They are victims of an unforgiving and misguided society, foremost among them are their Catholic parents and clergy, who condemn their children for institutionalization at Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, a series of prisons disguised as convents for the young women to pay for their “sins.”

The Laundries were run by the Sisters of Mercy, named after Mary Magdalene, a prostituted woman forgiven by Jesus Christ Himself for her remorse. But the Sisters of Mercy never forgave any of the reported 30,000 young women imprisoned behind locked doors, consigned to hard labor for 10 hours daily, 365 days yearly, without pay, until their parents or parish priests deemed they were cleansed enough to leave. Many adolescent girls were abandoned, never retrieved, living in poverty, misery and abuse in the Laundries until their oblivious deaths. Only until some unmarked caskets were discovered, causing a scandal in Ireland, that attention was paid to the unknown women, ultimately leading to the closing of the Magdalene Laundries. These convent prisons even flourished during the 1970s with the last laundry closed only in 1996.

The movie focuses on four adolescents. One girl, Margaret, is raped by her cousin at a family party. As she accosts her cousin for the sexual assault, her father consults a Catholic priest. The next day, she is sent to the Laundries while the cousin goes unpunished. Another girl, Rose, is an unwed mother. A priest coerces Rose into hastily signing her baby for adoption. When the papers are signed, Rose is sent to the Laundries. A third girl, Bernadette, is so wildly attractive and sensual that she is a magnet for hormone-driven young men. It is enough reason to exile her to the Laundries so that she does not become “prematurely impregnated,” even if she happens to be more chaste than the nuns at the convent or the children’s home, where she was orphaned. There are many more girls in the Laundries who have withered into old women, having been there for so long that they lost their minds. They become absolutely dependent on the Sisters, freely snitching on one another as they seek compassion, understanding, or some attention from the unfeeling nuns.

Mother Superior is Sister Bridget, a callous, sadistic, condescending nun, without any empathy for her wards. She rules over the Laundries like an Egyptian Pharaoh over his slaves, retiring freely to her comfortable chambers as her wards are lodged in dark, cold and dirty cells. The chaplain, a geriatric priest, pontificates about sexual morality, and subsequently selects a girl for a conference at his office. He coerces her to perform oral copulation. His hands hold the Body of Christ. With those same hands, he desecrates a child. There is no greater evil. The priest goes unpunished while the desecrated child forever condemned to hard labor and continuing sexual abuse in the convent prison.

The Magdalene Sisters exposes the sinister and diabolic institutionalization of adolescent girls. What makes the movie riveting is the depiction of Catholic hypocrisy at its worst—a systematic destruction of the souls of young women, barely out of their childhood by a misguided and paranoid fear of human sexuality, something that continues to possess the soul of this nation.


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